Press Your Luck
This year's Baron Ball celebration will draw on a casino theme. Proceeds to benefit Levi Hospital.
Patrons of Levi Hospital's annual Baron's Ball fundraising gala have come to expect the unexpected, which often expresses itself in a stage show that diverges sharply from the evening's motif.
Ball goers kitted out in Renaissance attire have been feted by a send up of a 1940s radio drama sponsored by the fictive Renaissance Soap, and “A Romance of Spain” theme that urged attire evocative of the Spanish Golden Age or Andalusian countryside has veered into a cruise ship production aboard the Romance of Spain.
This year's “Party of the Century” concept, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the nonprofit hospital, also promises a big reveal, said Davis Tillman, local impresario and proprietor of Tillman's Antiques. The Nov. 8 extravaganza at the Hot Springs Convention Center's Horner Hall will mark the 10th year he's emceed the event, helping it grow from 320 guests to the more than 500 who attended last year's “Vaudeville Circus” that raised $38,000.
“It's part of the tour de force,” Tillman said of the sometimes abrupt departure from theme. “Everybody has a great time. They're there for both a philanthropic cause, but also for fun. And one thing we provide is lots of fun.”
Costumes are part of the whimsy, as guests are encouraged to cloak themselves in garb consistent with the
theme, Tillman said.
“It's always a costume ball,” he said. “Costumes and masks are always encouraged. We provide the community with a formal yet costumed event every fall. It's one of the fall favorites.”
Tillman joins in the lark, receiving guests in his Baron d'Abila persona, a title he unabashedly assumes for the Baron's Ball or when necessity merits.
“When I turned 50, I purchased a title,” he said. “He's even more of a character than I am. I use it for charity events. It also gets you in some restaurants when it's hard to get in restaurants. It's worked very well in New Orleans and Las Vegas.”
The alter ego soon dissolves into the character at the center of the evening's performance. What form that character will manifest is closely guarded.
“After the lights go down and the curtains go up, I'm usually someone else,” Tillman said. “Sometimes a nice guy. Sometimes a not so nice guy.”
The centennial jubilee will riff off of the simple elegance of Monte Carlo, the Rat Pack and “Ocean's 11,” evoking a tack sharp James Bond brooding at the baccarat table in “Casino Royale” or a nattily clad Frank, Sammy and Dean wreathed in cigarette smoke while holding court at the Sands.
“We'll do it as a giant birthday celebration with feathered show girls, romantic ballads, comedians and end up the night with a casino night,” he said. “… If you're thinking James Bond at Monte Carlo in the `60s and `70s, you're probably right on target. It's Rat Pack goes to Monte Carlo.”
The performance runs one hour, but months of preparation are needed to bring it off seamlessly.
“We will spend the entire summer building sets and pulling things together for an hour performance,” Tillman said. “We have a wonderful group of volunteers who make costumes. The people really
enjoy it, and it helps many good causes throughout our community.”
The third act of the evening, the performance is preceded by a silent auction and an elaborate dinner intended to be as arresting as the entertainment. Turf Catering's handling the bill of fare that promises to dazzle the guests, Tillman said.
“One thing that makes it different is it's a full production,” he said. “You'll get a full theatrical-style production. You'll get a wonderful dinner. We really work hard to provide one of the outstanding charity dinners a person will have.
“We work with the chef, do tastings, the whole thing. I want the meal to be as exciting and themed as the actual entertainment.”
Just as the stage production is the third act, the dessert serves as the meal's denouement. Tillman said he prevails upon the chef to make it memorable. Chocolate fashioned into gondolas tied into the Venetian Masquerade concept of the inaugural Baron's Ball. Chocolate hewn circus masks and flourless chocolate cakes embellished with the ball's logo have all been part the ornate offerings that are at once art and rich cuisine.
“One of the things I always tell the chef is that the third act is the dessert, and you better be at the top of your game,” Tillman said. “If people aren't taking pictures of our desserts, I'm not a happy camper.”
The hospital's inpatient adult psychiatric program is one of the services benefited by the gala. It is the area's only inpatient program serving adult psychiatric patients, who can also be treated by the Transitions program. It's the short-term outpatient regimen that's also a beneficiary of the gala. It provides a group setting several times a week for improving coping skills, problem solving, stress management and treatment compliance.
Proceeds support the hospital's certified athletic training program as well, ensuring trainers are in place for high school athletic competitions and practices.
Tillman said a decade's worth of Baron's Balls have netted about $500,000 for the hospital.
Photography by Beth Bright, Richard Rasmussen and Mara Kuhn